Friday, July 31, 2009

Somebody At Pitchfork Agrees With Me On Blur!

Well, more or less. Scott Plagenhoef gives Blur's new two-disc compilation Midlife: A Beginner's Guide To Blur a robust 9.4 on the Pitchfork Meter. Yet it's the level of analysis in his review that really makes me feel less alone in this grunge-loving world. In other words, thank you Scott for letting me know I'm not the only American music fan who finds Blur's discography so deliciously rewarding. Assuming you are American. What's an American these days anyway? Some excerpts:
So this compilation can be seen as a more Americentric look at Blur's career, which makes some sense as they still have a lot of fanbase growth potential in the States. Few bands from the 90s increased their stature this decade among America's self-identifying indie set as much as Blur-- and this at a time when, thanks to globalization and the internet, the caché of romanticizing other nations as exotic or different largely dwindled. Anglophilia in the States was once the province of those willing to take the time and effort to look outside their immediate surroundings, and with that came the attendant feelings of acting or thinking differently from one's peers that often fuels cultural choices, especially in indie circles.
What he means to say, rather, is "the attendant feelings of knowing you're vastly superior to your suburban counterparts because you didn't form your musical taste simply by nodding along to whichever Offspring or Red Hot Chili Peppers song happened to be force-fed down your throat by some RIAA executive in your freshman year of college."
Fully embracing the UK's art-pop history, Blur's London- and UK-centric records made them superstars. Less celebratory than they at first seem, these records are teeming with despair and dripping with disdain. From Phil Daniels' title-track monologue to discouraging traffic reports to suicidal thoughts on the Cliffs of Dover, all was not well.
You're damn right Scott. Those albums are complex, layered, and open to endless interpretation, biotch. Scott proves just how open with his analysis of "This Is A Low":
Parklife's low point is also the band's artistic peak: The tempestuous, atmospheric "This Is a Low", with Albarn's reading of the English shipping report over Coxon's backward guitar was an admission that this once-dominant island nation was increasingly sheltered and inward. There is a sort of spectral finisterre quality to the song's tracing the outline of England by boat, and because those shipping reports-- news from the end of the world-- used to sign off the BBC's nightly radio broadcasts, the song almost sounds as if it could be the nation's lullaby. The sun once never set on the British Empire; this song seems to indicate that it now did so nightly-- in a haze of depression and doubt.
Nice one, Scott, nice one. Although "spectral finisterre" might be pushing it a bit. Nevertheless, your purple prose is on behalf of Blur, so I forgive you.
Despite the cravenness with which it seemed Blur-- Albarn and bassist Alex James, in particular-- sought and reveled in fame, this portion of their career is dominated by songs about pre-millennial tension, the dangers of conspicuous consumption, and social changes regarding shifts in technology and communication. In retrospect these prescient sentiments are the strongest and most compelling threads of their mid-90s work; rather than celebrate Britain with knees-up Mockneyisms, they often painted real warnings about a nation quickly being engulfed in obsessions with consumer and celebrity culture. In the years after World War II, America's exportation of such culture was seen as powerful, endearing, the sign of an emergent nation that would dominate the second half of the century as Britain once did. By the 90s, however, Blur had correctly identified the U.S./UK axis as perpetually spoiled and distracted and these themes often dominated their songs. But without the moaning and brooding of peers like Radiohead, Tricky, or Pulp, the messages were often glossed over.
Yeah! Screw Radiohead. Blur managed to address all that "yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" crap without having to "deconstruct the pop song," i.e. not write any.
With hindsight, it's no surprise that Blur's star has shone so brightly again this decade in their absence. Despite the cries about careerism, they rarely settled into one spot for long, and even when they were correctly perceived to have done so-- about one half of The Great Escape really is a Parklife retread-- they were still spreading their collective wings on album tracks and B-sides.
No No No! For the last time, The Great Escape is Parklife's subversive doppleganger! Scott, I was so with you, and for so long. Well, maybe you've made up for it by calling "He Thought Of Cars" "arguably their most underrated song." A couple of kind words for "Entertain Me" and I might have overlooked this Great Escape comment entirely.
Whether or not they continue to tour, record again, or really are calling it quits this time, the distance between their years of tabloid fame (and sometimes punchable ubiquity in the UK) and today has stripped away a lot of preening and the press and left their legacy enriched only by their music. Unlike a lot of rock's image-conscious genre-hoppers that music is sturdy, sometimes whipsmart, and endowed with more cracks and crevices and corners in which listeners can become lost than they're often given credit.
Sure, but they're no Fiery Furnaces.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Steampunk Willie

Mickey's going steampunk. Well, it's not really confirmed, but the concept art for some unannounced game called "Epic Mickey" was found on an artist's webpage recently. Check it out, some of it looks amazing, especially this one of a tin-man like Goofy. The game is expected to arrive on Nintendo's Wii if it ever sees the light of day. Oh, and Yoggoth, if you weren't in the know already, Steampunk is so out, Dieselpunk is where all the cool kids are at.

Monday, July 27, 2009

It's All Cyrillic (KOI8-R) To Me

Sometimes when I'm at my computer at work, having a mental fart, I start clicking on the right side of my mouse. For the most part my options do not become too exciting. Should I go "Back"? I'm not able to go "Forward"; that option is grey. But oh, what's this? It's a black arrow next to "Encoding." My hand subliminally guides my mouse to this arrow. It is clearly the most rewarding option. Another screen comes up! Suddenly I have five more options: "Auto-select," "Western European (Windows)," "Unicode (UTF-8)," "Western European (ISO)," and finally, teasingly, "More." There is another black arrow next to "More." What could this "More" be?

I drag my mouse across "More," and suddenly a whole new world opens up to me! What language should I choose? "Arabic (ASMO 708)" or "Arabic (DOS)"? Perhaps "Cyrillic (DOS)"? Or maybe "Cyrillic (KOI8-R)"? Or "Cyrillic (KOI8-U)"? What do you suppose this diffference is? And how come there's no "Baltic (DOS)," only "Baltic (ISO)" and "Baltic (Windows)"? Is Estonia not good enough for DOS? And look at this: "Hebrew (ISO-Logical)" and "Hebrew (ISO-Visual)." Hmm. Do I want to celebrate Passover logically, or visually? Do I wimp out and pick "Chinese Simplified," or do I go hardcore and take "Chinese Traditional"? Finally, sandwiched between "Turkish (Windows)" and "Vietnamese (Windows)" is "User Defined." Dear God. Could I create my own linguistic internet universe? Could I defy the laws of time and space, all with the right click of my mouse? Or maybe I could just upload some Farsi software? I prefer to think I could do the former.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Eat Your Heart Out Elton

Ladies and Gentlemen, THIS is how you sing. None of this "Candle in the Wind" bull (how would it even stay lit?!?). We're talking straight from the heart, gut-wrenching (literally), soulfulness inspired by the Gospel. A tune? Don't need it. Words? Overrated. Autotune? Forget about it! I, for one, can't even make it all the way through this video - it's THAT moving. You could say it even brought me to tears... Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

No, Andrew, Thank You

Andrew! So nice to hear from you. It's been a while, hope you're doing well. Thank you for taking the time to comment on every single one of our blog posts. All the way back to...March. Really, we appreciate it. And your comments! Oh, the comments. They're always so engaging and thoughtful. Here I was, poor old me, thinking that no one had anything witty or insightful to say on the subject of the masturbating cat. And yet Andrew, you soothe my doubts with your tender words. "It's really great work." But isn't it, though? Nevertheless, I have to be honest: it wouldn't be half as great without the support of readers like yourself!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Masturbatory Article From Slate - Literally!

Finally, a Slate article on a worthy subject: animal masturbation. According to Daniel Engber:
Dogs, cats, lions, bears, and a number of other mammals self-stimulate with their front paws; randy walruses use their flippers. Horses and donkeys, whose masturbatory habits have been particularly well-studied, engage in "rhythmic bouncing, pressing, or sliding of the erect penis against the abdomen"; male deer do the same. The 19th-century physiologist Karl Friedrich Burdach has even described something like female ejaculation among solitary mares, which "rub themselves against whatever obstacles they find, often spurting a white, viscous mucus." A bull, meanwhile, stimulates itself by alternately protruding its penis from a genital sheath, while some moose can ejaculate simply by rubbing their antlers on bits of vegetation. According to observations made at the University of Buffalo in the 1940s, both male and female porcupines manipulate their genitals with inanimate objects—they're also known to "seize, straddle, and ride sticks about the cage."
Splendid, my dear, simply splendid! Of course, that's all very well and good, you're thinking, but what about apes, parrots, and turtles? Ah, but you spoke too soon:
Our fellow apes are among the most ardent and industrious masturbators: Female orangutans have been observed to fashion primitive dildos from sticks or pieces of liana, while males stimulate themselves with pieces of fruit, leaves, or other objects. Although it's sometimes said that only mammals masturbate, we have clear examples of autoeroticism among birds, which rub their cloacae on whatever's handy.
I've got to use that one sometime. "Hey baby, why don't you rub your cloacae on whatever's handy?" Nevertheless, animal masturbation remains something of a scientific enigma:
Still, neither the fresh-sperm hypothesis nor its discredited cousin, the kamikaze-sperm hypothesis, can account for more than a small subset of animal masturbation. Reloading might explain the behavior of bucks, bulls, and male primates, all of which tend to ejaculate at the end of an autoerotic episode. But many other animals never reach that point. Horses rarely climax, despite masturbating dozens of times per day—so what motivates the dalliance of a stallion or, for that matter, a mare? Can evolution account for female masturbation in the animal kingdom?
Answers! Dear God, we need answers!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Into Which Groove?

All this Michael Jackson talk has led me to revisit the work of some of his 80s dance-pop contemporaries, including arguably his chief chart rival: Madonna. True, Michael Jackson did get a 13-year head start on Madonna, but they actually are (or were, rather) the same age, and Madonna has also been more prolific. After 1982, Michael Jackson managed to release about four albums, whereas Madonna has released about twelve (does the Who's That Girl soundtrack really count?). It also must be said that, despite Kaballah and Swept Away and her attempt at rapping on "American Life" and whatnot, she is probably a little more in touch with reality than MJ ever was.

Which brings me to the matter at hand. I am trying to decide which version of "Into The Groove" I like more: the original version or the mix on the Immaculate Collection. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. The original simply starts with the beat in full throttle, whereas the Immaculate version starts mostly a capella, backed by brief snippets of organ, before the beat finally enters. Although I respect the Immaculate mix's attempt to shake up the immortal "And you can dance! (you can dance! can dance!)/For inspiration (inspiration... inspiration)" intro, ultimately I think I prefer the intro as it appears in the original mix. With the original intro I get the sense the track may have already been "grooving" for hours and hours on end and the engineer serendipitously stumbled into the control booth, fresh from a nice snort of coke, thought to himself, "Wow, I've got to get this on tape!" and finally managed to press the red button. It gives the opening a sense of in medias res. On the other hand, because the Immaculate mix intially holds the beat back, when it finally enters, it has a heavier impact. It's like Chinese water torture, trying to decide!

Some further evidence to consider. The original mix is more spare and lean, while the Immaculate version is bathed in that "Q Sound" effect which sort of blurs everything together. The original mix also has a few extra "Now I know you're mine"s which were edited out of the Immaculate version - but then again, were they really needed? I'd say the original mix has the edge, aside from the not-so-insignificant absence of the Immaculate version's hot latin salsa piano solo. Regardless, in either version, the song is like the catchiest creation of Satan's most evil spawn (and I'm not even going to get into the matter of the extended mixes on You Can Dance).

Indeed, as lengthy and rewarding a career as Madonna has had, with some latter-day singles that are almost perfect for what they are, I have to go out on a limb here and say that her earliest period is her best. Although "innocent" is not really a word that many people associate with early Madonna, I feel there is a certain innocent quality to "Holiday," "Borderline," "Material Girl," etc. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think part of Madonna's initial appeal was that she did not have a conventionally strong singing voice. She was like a throwback to the early 60s girl group singers such as Little Eva or Ronnie Specter or Rosie and the Originals, who sounded like they were plucked from a Brooklyn street corner and thrust into a studio for the very first time in their lives (in fact, Little Eva, of "Loco-Motion" fame, was Carole King's babysitter).

But right around "Papa Don't Preach" Madonna suddenly decided that she needed to be a "serious" singer and that she needed vocal training. Nonsense. To call her voice "Minnie Mouse on helium," as one critic did, is to dismiss its very character. Listen to the way she sings "tonight I want to dance with some-one e-else!" The purity of the entire universe is in those notes. I also love the way she sings "Touch! body," as if she were stroking herself right there behind the microphone. But compare that to Prince, who probably would have just sang, "Touch my penis" and made it all too explicit. That's what I mean by "innocent." If Madonna was horny, she was horny in more of a guileless teenage girl sort of way than an experienced prostitute sort of way.

Also I am convinced with early Madonna that there was very little pretense toward creating "art" whatsoever. "Into The Groove" was probably intended to be completely, totally disposable. According to AMG, it was never properly released as a single in the US. They were making a forgettable B-side! But the public can spot a winner. At any rate, I know that she can't go around at 50 pretending she's still 25. But depth hasn't exactly become Madonna. The irony is that she probably came off deeper when she was trying to be irredeemably shallow.

Monday, July 13, 2009


The ladyfriend and I went to see Bruno this past Saturday. Has anyone else seen it yet? I knew it was going to be pretty outrageous, a "Hard R" as Ebert called it. Well I was pleasantly surprised to find out what a hard R meant. There are penises within the first five minutes of the film. I thought that was NC-17 stuff. Anyways, I was already familiar with the character of Bruno from Da Ali G show days. Back then Bruno was there to satirize the vacuousness of the fashion industry - like the one interview where he asks some employee at a high-end Rodeo Drive clothing store what celebrities shop there. When the employee can't name anyone terribly interesting Bruno stops filming and asks the guy to mention some bigger names, like Britney or J-Lo. They begin filming again and the employee changes his story, stating that Britney, etc. are all regular patrons. Funny stuff.

Unfortunately the film "Brüno" wants to deal more with (homo) sexuality. While I'm not against exposing people's bigotry and ignorance towards the subject, I was hoping for more of the old Bruno. Besides a slight bit at the beginning where Bruno hilariously manages to make it onto a fashion runway in Milan, there's really not much about fashion at all. Instead it's all sex-sex-sex. There's funny bits at the beginning where there's some obviously faux sexual acts going on, but later there's a few scenes with some very real sex going on, with just the tiniest bit of black censor bars editing out the naughty bits. While none of this made me feel uncomfortable, I was just more pretty astounded that they could get away with this with just an R. It was like watching the end of the Brown Bunny all over again.

There are a few fairly memorable bits, like when Bruno is naming a bunch of celebrities and Germanizing their names (my favorite - Will Smith becomes "Wilhelm Schmidt"), or when Bruno brings out his adopted black baby on a talk show dominated by an all black audience. Then the movie ends with a closing song wherein somehow Sascha Baron Cohen, I mean Bruno, has managed to wrangle up the biggest talents from the British and Emerald isles to sing a song with him, somehow even getting one of LE's favorite artists to sing a line about "anal bleaching". How they got that poor man to do that I have no idea. All in all, not as good as Borat, but it still has its moments.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Cosmic American Perspective

When the performers who say they "never would have existed without you" are Usher and Justin Timberlake, your legacy might be in trouble. Now, I'll admit that Michael Jackson did release about ten or eleven really great songs over the course of his career. Among my collection of famous "mixes" is a Michael Jackson mix. Not many artists have been able to leave behind at least 80 minutes of memorable music. But I wouldn't put him up there with artists who've released album after album of challenging, gritty, eclectic work. He's Michael Jackson! Let's not get carried away here, people. I think the passionate outpouring of admiration emanating from the music world has more to do with the poor state of the current music scene than with the strength of Michael Jackson's discography itself.

Allow me to illustrate my point with some comments from the internet. In his appreciation, Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "[his] sudden death gives us all an opportunity to appreciate the enduring genius of his art but to realize that we have no musician that speaks to all of us…and that we haven’t for some time now." In other words, "Man, I wish I could be reviewing Thriller for the first time rather than Miley Cyrus' new album!" But if Michael Jackson really did speak to "all of us," I don't know if he did it in a very interesting way. What, exactly, did he say? "Mamma-say mamma-sa mamma-mamma-sa"? Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone waxes a little more grandiloquent: "But in 1979, with Off The Wall, he invented modern pop as we know it." That may be true, but what if I don't happen to be much of a fan of "modern pop as we know it"? If you ask me, Michael Jackson happened to be making pretty good music at a time when mainstream music was rather iffy. Sure, Thriller deserved its commercial success, but what else were people going to buy? Sheena Easton?

Chuck Eddy writes on the Rhapsody blog, ""He was easily the greatest dancer of the past three decades, probably the greatest singer, and quite possibly the greatest songwriter." You mean the guy who didn't even write most of his own songs? And how much do you think Chuck Eddy actually knows about the world of dance? Yes, he was talented, and yes, he just died. But maybe do a little research first, eh Chuck?

Some of the commentators on the AMG blog do a decent, if excessively nasty, job of deflating this bubble. Here's "Mark":
"Michael Jackson. Yawn. Guy could really sing and dance in his prime. Great entertainer. Not a musician. Sold a lot of records. So did Milli Vanili, Wham, the Backstreet Boys, NKOTB, and countless others including today’s crop of Idol wasteoids. The media tore this guy up mercilessly for years and now they exult him and you all lap it up. Sheep. Most of those quotes above are disgusting beyond words. I wonder how many of those were written by people who even remember when Off the Wall or Thriller came out. I suspect many articles have been written by 20/30-somethings who for some reason look back longingly at the 80s as some sort of golden era. They weren’t. They sucked. And Jackson was a big part of that suckiness. I graduated from HS in ‘85. I know. No one took this guy seriously back then and they sure shouldn’t now that he’s gone. It’s sad when anyone passes on. But let’s keep it in perspective here folks. It’s really embarrassing. A third of the world doesn’t have clean drinking water. Cry for them."
And here's "hopjunkie":
"Mark is pretty much right even if a little too brash. Jackson was a huge, mega-selling pop star. He influenced major pop trends of his time and made lots of people very rich. However, I think if you really are honest, it’s true that it was the production and spectacle that made this guy’s career - not the songs...Liking pop music is no crime and it can be fun. But let’s not confuse Jackson with a serious artist and let’s definitely NOT overlook the freak show of his life and the possible damage he inflicted on innocent others."
So for a week now I have been witnessing music critics try to wring deep insights out of music that I don't think is particularly deep. And yet there some songs that I find quite compelling.

A critic may be inclined to dismiss Michael Jackson's solo career, and yet his death still would have merited attention simply based on his Jackson Five legacy alone. There is, of course, no genre with more rock critic cred than prime-era Motown, and the Jackson Five appeared at the very tail end of the period. Lest you forget just how far back Michael Jackson's fame goes: he became a superstar while the Beatles were still officially together. Then there was the singing. I'm no expert on great singing, but he sang better as a child than most adult singers sing as adults. My personal Exhibit A:

How could he have possibly known what those emotions were like? He probably didn't. I guess his dad beat that singing out of him. And you know what? It was worth it.

Now onto the solo career. I've only heard Off The Wall a couple of times, and I remember it as consisting of two perfect songs ("Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" and "Rock With You") and a bunch of well-produced filler. Not quite sure why STE calls it "a visionary that remains vibrant and giddily exciting years after its release"; I think he's being generous. I'll take Pink Floyd's The Wall instead. Those two songs are great, though. They are close to disco but rely a lot less on synthesizers. The horns and percussion all sound really snappy and organic. It is still weird hearing Jackson trying to be sexy considering all that followed. "You know this...force it' a lot of power...make me feel like a...make me feel like a...ooh!" Make you feel like what, Michael? Sleeping with boys?

I am now going to say something that will set the critical community on fire: I don't think that Thriller is a great album. Yes, it has many great songs on it, but that doesn't make it a great album. There is no overarching message, no unified feel. As Pitchfork's Tom Ewing writes, "Thriller is inconsistent in style, which gives it something to appeal to everyone, but it's oddly tough to listen to even the great bits sequentially-- its peaks are from different mountain ranges."

Let's go song by song: To these ears, "Baby Be Mine" and "The Lady In My Life" are OK. Not terrible, but close to forgettable, and no "greatest album of all time" should have songs close to forgettable on it. "P.Y.T." is enjoyable but not amazing and, in retrospect, kind of creepy. "The Girl Is Mine" is hit-worthy but not "peaking at #2"-worthy (which is what it did). "Wanna Be Starting Something" is pretty strong but always sounded like a poor man's "Thriller" to me. Then there is the title track, which is musically thrilling, but...the lyrics are cheesy! Michael had an audience of billions; what would inspire him to record a kitschy song about horror movies? It's a great single but my God, you'd think he'd just released "Let It Be." I'd say nearly the same thing about "Beat It." So Eddie Van Halen does a solo. I need more. Besides, am I really supposed to buy Michael Jackson as some bad ass street thug? I don't think so.

However, I think there are two songs on Thriller that actually manage to match musical strength with thematic depth. The first is "Billie Jean." At the time people might have looked at "Billie Jean" as Michael doing a little role-playing, but in retrospect I think we can say that Michael was not making any of it up. This is how he really saw his life - random strangers constantly coming up to him at all hours of the day, framing him for no apparent reason:

For forty days and forty nights
The law was on her side
But who can stand when she's in demand
Her schemes and plans
'Cause we danced on the floor in the round

At least he had the balls to put it into a chart-topping mainstream hit. And the production! There are all these little, ghostly Michaels shouting in the background every few seconds; I don't even know what they're saying half the time but it's very haunting. And the little film noir bit of strings at the end of every chorus! This song is as good as any pop song by anybody: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, you name it.

The other song from Thriller with depth is "Human Nature." The song was written by former Carpenters lyricist John Bettis and Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. That is some serious M.O.R. cred right there. In fact, Toto basically functioned as the backing band on this track. And yet, even though he did not write it, Michael makes it his own:

Looking out
Across the nightime
The city winks a sleepless eye
Hear her voice
Shake my window
Sweet seducing sighs
Get me out
Into the night time
Four walls won't hold me tonight
If this town
Is just an apple
Then let me take a bite

I think this song is the sound of Michael Jackson just wishing that he could be a normal, anonymous human being for five seconds of his life. It's the sound of a deeply troubled young man who knows he won't be able to keep his inner demons at bay for very much longer. "Human Nature" is as close as Michael Jackson ever got to sounding like a functional, mature human being. After this it was pure regression. The song is even sadder in retrospect.

But again, the detailed production is what makes it hold up after all these years. Michael and Quincy spent time on "Human Nature," and it shows. They needed to spend as much time on "The Girl Is Mine" and "P.Y.T" as they did on this song if they wanted to say they made a truly top-to-bottom great album. Listen to all the fluttering synths and chimes and bells in the background - it's almost psychedelic! And again, he overdubbed his vocals in all sorts of weird, random places, so it's like a cascading waterfall of Michael Jacksons.

But for me (and, I suspect, many others my age), this music has an extra appeal because it reminds me of the very origins of my own life. It evokes, as much early '80s pop does, the first faint stirrings of existence, and as a result has a power that other, even better, music does not. It's lodged back there with hazy memories of E.T. and Return of the Jedi and other pieces of pop culture which I experienced in ways I can't even remember where, or how, but know only that I did.

Nevertheless, for me Thriller suggests a better album to come rather than a summit in its own right. It's like a Revolver without a Sgt. Pepper, a Talking Book without an Innervisions. Instead we got Bad, which wasn't bad but showed signs of laziness. The synthesizers on the title track and "Smooth Criminal" were not chosen as wisely as the synthesizers on "Billie Jean" and "Human Nature" were. He also forgot how to start a song dramatically. The best parts of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" and "Man In The Mirror" are the choruses; the intros are awash in bland keyboards and generic percussion. I think Bad is where Michael Jackson started thinking too hard about his position in the pop charts, rather than simply make music just for the sheer joy of it. I also feel like his singing at this point became overly affected. Just because the "hee hee"s and "shamon"s were distinctive doesn't mean they were necessary. But the bottom line is that, although the songs themselves weren't worse as compositions per se, he didn't bother to put as much effort into the sound. According to Wikipedia, engineer Bruce Swedien mixed "Billie Jean" ninety-one times. Ninety-one times! Now that's what I'm talking about. Here's more:
Jones had told Swedien to create a drum sound that no one had ever heard before. The audio engineer was also told to add a different element, "sonic personality". "What I ended up doing was building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat", Swedien later wrote. "The bottom line is that there aren't many pieces of music where you can hear the first three or four notes of the drums, and immediately tell what the piece of music is." He concluded, "But I think that is the case with 'Billie Jean'—and that I attribute to sonic personality.
So there you go. In the end, Jackson simply didn't bother to imbue his recordings with the same level of "sonic personality" as most of my favorite artists did. But he did do it every once in a while. And how many musicians can even boast that much?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Could Live Forever and Never Know Everything...

Here are some interesting academic papers:

- The nature of navel fluff.
- An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces.
- Accidental condom inhalation.
- Pigeons can discriminate "good" and "bad" paintings by children (how would you like to be the kid whose painting wasn't even good enough for the pidgeons?)
- Optimizing the sensory characteristics and acceptance of canned cat food: use of a human taste panel.
- Effect of different types of textile fabric on spermatogenesis: an experimental study. (you need a bit more information for this one: "Twenty-four dogs were divided into two equal groups, one of which wore cotton underpants and the other polyester ones. Seven dogs wearing nothing were used as controls." Sounds like fun.)

See more at

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Zrbo Reviews: VNV Nation's Of Faith, Power and Glory

VNV Nation's newest offering Of Faith, Power and Glory is a near perfect summation of everything the band is and where it's headed. This is reflected in the opening and closing songs of the album which showcase this neatly - the former the perfect industrial-dance anthem VNV is known for, the latter equally anthemic but sounding like nothing the band has done before.

Not only are these two songs expertly placed, but the entire pacing of the album is wonderfully executed. As is typical of a VNV release, the album opens with an instrumental (or near-instrumental) prelude which sets the tone for the album. 1999's Empires opened with the sparse "Firstlight", Futureperfect opened with the multi-lingual "Foreword", Judgement with the serene "Prelude". Of Faith, Power and Glory begins with warlike "Pro Victoria", which begins with what sounds like literal drums of war and gradually turns into something almost tribal, like some sort of military-brigade drum circle.

This sets the stage for the previously mentioned first song, "Sentinel". This song is a fantastic dance number, with Ronan Harris conjuring up one of the most catchy, memorable, anthemic, and ever-so VNV sounding choruses of his career. That Ronan is still able to produce such infectious lyrics this far into the band's career is a testament to his skills. It's surely as memorable as the best anything New Order ever did - it's that good.

This is followed up by "Tomorrow Never Comes", another dancy number with a Giorgio Moroder-like synth line running through it (as they played the song in San Francisco recently Ronan yelled out "A little disco never hurt anyone!").

Next up is "The Great Divide". An aptly titled track, as it is sure to divide some longtime fans. The song shows just how far the band has come in it's sound. With a guitar synth running through it with an almost pop-like sound, the song seems far removed from VNV Nation's earlier dark, industrial sound. What reluctant fans should be mindful of however is that VNV has always had a strain of pop running through their music, and it is that slight pop edge that has been the key to their success. While earlier songs such as Standing, Darkangel, and the band's signature industrial club anthem Honour may have contained dark, ominous lyrics, there was always a strong melody in the background that differentiated VNV's work from other industrial-dance stalwarts such as Das Ich and Wumpscut. "The Great Divide" is the natural evolution of that sound.

The band allows us to catch our breath for a moment with the somber "Ghost", a slow, brooding piece. While perhaps not as memorable as the preceding tracks, the song fits nicely into the album's pacing, allowing us a moment of rest before being hit with "Art of Conflict". The only track on the album that retains any glimpse of VNV's industrial roots, "Art of Conflict" contains some hard beats mixed with a good dose of trance with Ronan reciting lines from Sun Tzu's Art of War. Some of these quotes have certainly been chosen by Ronan as commentary on our modern times, in particular with the line "There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare" perhaps the most telling. This track also serves as a nice middle bridge for the album, taking us into the second half.

"In Defiance" is the band's most radio friendly song to date. Clocking in at under four minutes, and with the chorus kicking in less than one, the song uses more guitar synth to create an energetic pop-rock song.

Fitting nicely into the flow of the album is "Verum Aeternus", the album's most experimental track. With a beat that doesn't kick in for a few minutes and with Ronan's vocals buried deep in the mix, the song begins as a dreamy reminiscence and transitions into a mid-tempo piece with Ronan's vocals pushed perhaps a bit too deep behind the music so as to make them nearly indecipherable at times.

This leads us towards the end of the album, with the track "From my hands" bringing things back down once more. A unique song featuring only Ronan and a piano (and some strings hidden in the background), the arrangement and the overall sound of this piece are wonderfully executed. The only thing lacking is that perhaps the lyrics, or more specifically the sentiment of the lyrics, are a bit weak. Ronan sings to an unspecified "you", lamenting the fact that he must leave. Unfortunately it's not made clear to whom he's talking. Perhaps he's leaving a significant other, maybe a good friend, maybe someone on their deathbed, or is this a goodbye to the fans? The words are vague enough that it's not ever made clear. Regardless, the piece works and sets the album up for the big finisher.

"Where There is Light" builds the energy back up one more time, turning into one of the album's, and perhaps the band's, best songs. With an almost "Where the streets have no name" beginning, the song explodes into a pure power-pop confection, powered by a driving beat and more guitar synth. In some of his most evocative lyrics, Ronan sings his praises of mankind, the Earth-as-carousel, and his general hope that in the end we'll all make it work somehow. It's nearly a summation of everything VNV Nation is and has become. Then, just as you think you know where the song is headed, Ronan drops everything out, back to him and a piano, and builds it back up into something that I can only describe as majestic.

Of Faith, Power, and Glory is VNV Nation's most technically proficient album. With each new release Ronan Harris not only expands on the group's sound, but shows that he still has a good ear turned to the club scene. Not a single bleep, bloop, or synth seems misplaced, and the album flows from song to song naturally. While some fans who've followed the band from their industrial debut will undoubtedly be turned off, they should recognize that VNV Nation's strength comes from their ability to meld industrial anthems with catchy hooks and emotive lyrics. If this were the band's final album it would act as a perfect denouement to the band's motto that "One should strive to achieve, rather than sit in bitter regret." 5/5 Zrbo points.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Vegas - Final Thoughts

I would describe Las Vegas as a tender, loving monument to human weakness. It seems to dangle a seductive little carrot over the desperate center of the American psyche. It offers a temporary vision of existence, but it is a vision of existence that many Americans, in their laziest spiritual moments, would hope to eventually make permanent. It gives its visitors a sense that they are being "bad" and "naughty" for one pathetic weekend before they have to go back to work and be "proper." "Man, I wish I could just drink and gamble and go to a strip club every freakin' day! I wish I could just walk downstairs and gorge myself at an all-you-can-eat buffet whenever I felt like it!" Do you though? Do you really?

I think there is a lot of darkness in the American character. Vegas manages to exploit it with expert proficiency. I have darkness in me too, but the good kind. The people who enjoy Vegas don't seem to be fully aware of what they want. The town excels at making people think they're happy for about five seconds, and then just as they're about to realize how unhappy they are, the town throws something else bright and shiny at them in the hopes that they'll never notice. Yes, it's nice to see a scantily-clad woman dancing on a tabletop three feet in front of you...aside from the fact that she's being paid to do that. Yes, it's cool that somebody took the energy and time and creativity to build a giant replica of New York City...aside from that fact that it's a casino and that they're trying to take your money. Vegas is like the obnoxious frat party I decided to attend on a whim and after five minutes I knew I wanted to go home and watch a movie. I don't think people are really getting in touch with each other in Vegas. I like sitting down and having conversations. Sue me.


On the plane ride home, I ended up sitting next to the most aggressively shallow young woman in the history of aggressively shallow young women everywhere. She was flying with another young woman, and they seemed to know each other only slightly. Quite why they were traveling together I could not say. As soon as they sat down, she opened her privileged, suburban mouth:

"I didn't really like Vegas, I don't know if I ever want to come back, you know? I'm just not that into guys just constantly coming up to you all sleazy-like and everything. I'm really more about like, staying at home with my boyfriend, cuddling on the couch, you know?"

Yeah, sure you are.

"My boyfriend is really, like, individualistic. He didn't really hang out with like the cool crowd in high school or anything, he just did his own thing, but that's why I like him, you know? Like, I just always want to fit in and do whatever everybody else is doing or whatever, but he's totally not like that. He's got this tattoo on his arm that says 'Stand,' he says it's for his favorite song or something."

Not R.E.M.'s "Stand"? Can you imagine a guy getting a tattoo because his favorite song is R.E.M.'s "Stand"? How about a tattoo of "Orange Crush" while you're at it?

"Guys always come up to him and are like, 'Stan'? Do you have like a really close friend named Stan or something? It's funny."

I was waiting for the "No Electronic Devices" sign to finally flash off, so that I could crank my mp3 player up. LOUD.

"She's like my best friend. We met on the first day of 1st Grade and we're still like the best of friends, but sometimes we stopped hanging out for long periods. Like, she didn't have that many boyfriends, and I always had a bunch of boyfriends, so she was always kind of jealous..."

Dear God! Get me off this plane! And then she began showing off all the photos she had of her shallow friends on her digital camera. I was not offered a peak. Admit it you little skank, Vegas was perfect for you.